Neferet's Curse

Page 10

Even on the dim landing I could see the intensity of his eyes as his hot gaze took in my loosened night robe and my free-falling hair. "Is that Alice's robe you're wearing?"
"No. This is my robe, Father."
"You did not wear one of your mother's dresses tonight." His hand had tightened on my arm, and I knew there would be bruised shadows there the next day.
"I refashioned one of Mother's dresses so that it fit me. That is probably why you didn't recognize it," I'd said quickly, sorry that I had been so stubborn-so vain-and that I had given him an excuse to focus his attention on me.
"Your figures are very similar, though." He'd lurched toward me, closing the space between us and making it thick with alcohol fumes and sweat.
Panic lent my voice strength and I spoke more sharply than I have ever heard any woman speak to him. "Similar, but not the same! I am your daughter. Not your wife. I bid you to remember that, Father."
He'd stopped moving toward me then and blinked, as if he couldn't quite focus on me. I used his hesitation to pull my arm from his loosened grasp.
"What is it you're saying?"
"I am saying good night, Father." Before he could grab me again I'd turned, lifted my skirts, and raced up the stairway, taking the steps two at a time. I did not stop running until I closed the door to my bedchamber and leaned against it. My breath had been short and my heart had been beating frantically. I was sure, quite sure, that I heard his heavy feet following me, and I'd stood, trembling, afraid to move, even after all sounds outside my room went quiet.
My panic finally subsided, and I'd gone to my bed, pulling the coverlet around me, trying to still my thoughts and find the calm within me again. My eyelids had just begun to flutter when there was a heavy footstep outside my room. I burrowed farther down within my bed linens and watched, wide-eyed, as the doorknob slowly, silently turned. The door opened a crack and I squeezed my eyes closed, held my breath, and imagined with all of my mind that I was back on my bend under the willow tree, safely cloaked in the comforting shadows.
I know he entered my room. I am sure of it. I could smell him. But I remained perfectly silent, not moving, imagining I was hidden completely in darkness. It seemed a very long time, but I heard my door reclose. I'd opened my eyes to find my room empty, though scented with brandy, sweat, and my fear. Hastily I'd gotten out of bed. Barefoot, I used all of my strength to push and drag my heavy chest of drawers in front of my door, barring the entrance.
And still I did not allow myself to sleep until dawn lightened the sky and I heard the servants begin to stir.
* * *
Sunday, I awoke and did what would become my morning ritual: I dragged the chest of drawers from before my door. Then I avoided Father the entire day. I told Mary that I was exhausted from the excitement of the dinner party, and that I wished to remain in my room, resting. I'd been quite firm, and Mary did not question me. She left me to myself, and for that I was grateful. I did sleep, but I also planned.
I am not mad. I am not hysterical. I do not know exactly what it is I see in my father's gaze, but I do know that it is an unhealthy obsession and it only reinforces my determination to leave Wheiler House soon.
I went to my looking glass, stepped out of my day dress, and studied my na**d body, cataloging my attributes. I have high, firm br**sts, a slim waist, and generous h*ps that have no inclination to fat. My hair is thick and falls almost to my waist. Like my mother's was, it is an unusual color-dark, but touched by rich auburn highlights. My lips are full. My eyes, again like Mother's, are undeniably striking. It is a true comparison to name them emerald in color.
With an utter lack of vanity or emotion I acknowledged that I was beautiful, even more beautiful than my mother, and she had often been called the most handsome woman in Second City. I also realized that, even though it was an abomination for his feelings to be such, it was my body, my beauty that my father so obviously coveted.
My mind and heart were still filled with Arthur Simpton, but they were also filled with a sense of desperation that frightened me. I needed Arthur to love me not only because he was handsome and kind and well positioned in the world. I needed Arthur to love me because he was my escape. Monday, I would visit his home. Staring into my looking glass I resolved to do anything to gain his vow and his troth.
If I am to save my life, I must make him mine.
* * *
Sunday evening, I'd expected Mary to bring me a dinner tray. Instead, Carson knocked on my door.
"Excuse me, Miss Wheiler. Your father requests that you join him for dinner."
"Please tell Father that I am still unwell," I'd said.
"Be pardon, Miss, but your father has had Cook make a healing stew. He said either you come to the dining room, or he will join you in your parlor here for dinner."
I'd felt a horrible sickness and had to clasp my hands together to keep from showing how I was trembling. "Very well, then. Tell Father I will join him for dinner."
With leaden feet I made my way to the dining room. Father was already seated at his place, with the Sunday paper open and a glass of red wine raised to his lips. He'd looked up as I entered the room.
"Ah, Emily! There you are. George!" he'd bellowed. "Pour Emily some of this excellent wine. That and Cook's stew will have her right as rain in no time-right as rain."
I sat without speaking. Father didn't seem to notice my silence.
"Now, you know, of course, that the opening of the Columbian Exposition is exactly one week from tomorrow, on May the first. After the success of your dinner party last night, Mrs. Ayer as well as Mrs. Burnham have taken an especial interest in you. The ladies have invited you to be included in their opening ceremony festivities, which will culminate in dinner at the University Club."
I gaped at him, not able to hide my surprise. The University Club was exclusive and opulent and not a place young, single girls were invited. Women were rarely allowed there at all, and those allowed were chaperoned by husbands.
"Well, have you nothing to say? Will you just gape like a codfish?"
I'd closed my mouth and lifted my chin. He wasn't drunk yet, and sober Father was much less frightening. "I am flattered by the ladies' attentions."
"Of course you are. You should be. Now, you must consider carefully what you will wear. First we will be going to the Midway, and then to the club. You should choose one of your mother's more elaborate gowns, but not one with such decadence that it would be out of place during the opening ceremonies."
One small thought had my heart lightening, and I'd nodded somberly. "Yes, Father. I agree the gown is very important. When I call on Mrs. Simpton tomorrow, I must ask her to help me in the choosing, and perhaps even in the alterations of it . She is a lady of impeccable taste and I'm sure she will-"
He'd waved his hand, cutting me off. "I have already had Carson send word to your mother's dressmaker to come to the house tomorrow. You have no time for such social frivolities as gallivanting about town. I have sent your excuses to the Simptons, and assured them it would not be necessary for that son of theirs to collect you. Instead, I will make a call on Mr. Simpton Monday evening for after-dinner brandy so that we may discuss business matters. That gout of his has kept him absent too long from board meetings. If Simpton will not go to the board, the president of the board will go to Simpton."
"What?" I'd pressed my fingers against my forehead, trying to stop the pounding in my temples. "You canceled my visit to the Simpton house? Why ever would you do that?"
Father's hard gaze met mine. "You have been ill all day, hiding away in your room. Too much excitement is obviously not good for your constitution, Emily. You will remain home this entire week so you will be fit for Monday next and the University Club."
"Father, I was simply tired from the party. Tomorrow I will be quite well. I am feeling more like myself already."
"Perhaps had you felt more like yourself earlier I would give credence to your words, but as it is, I have decided what is best for you-and that is saving yourself for Monday next. Have I made myself clear, Emily?"
I sent his hard gaze back at him, in my imagination filling it with the depth of my loathing. "Yes, you have made yourself clear." My voice had been stone.
Father's smile had been self-satisfied and cruel. "Good. Even your mother bowed to my will."
"Yes, Father, I know she did." I should have stopped there, but my anger allowed my words to be free. "But I am not my mother, nor would I ever desire to be."
"You could do no better in life than to be the Lady your mother was."
I'd let my voice mirror the coldness expanding within me. "Do you ever wonder, Father, what Mother would say if she could see us now?"
His eyes had narrowed. "Your mother is never far from my thoughts."
George began to serve the stew then, and Father neatly changed the subject, launching into a monologue about the ridiculous expenditures of the Exposition-like bringing an entire tribe of African pigmies to the Midway-and I sat silently, planning, thinking, plotting, and above all hating him.
* * *
I did not dare visit my garden that night. I excused myself before Father poured the brandy, smoothly using his own words against him by saying that I realized, after all, that he had been correct-I really was completely fatigued and must rest and be prepared for Monday next.
I dragged the heavy chest of drawers before the door, then sat atop it with my ear pressed against the cold wood, listening. Until well after moonrise I heard him pacing back and forth on his landing.
I was filled with frustration all of Monday. I so needed to call on Arthur and his parents! My only condolence was the fact that I was certain Arthur would see through Father's ruse. I had already warned him of Father's possessiveness. This would be but one more piece of evidence to prove my words true.
Surely the Simptons would at least attend the opening of the Columbian Exposition, if not the dinner at the University Club as well. I would see Arthur again Monday next-I must see Arthur again then. I would use all of my wits to find an opportunity to speak with him. It would be forward of me, but my circumstances were such that they demanded drastic actions. Arthur was kind and reasonable. He and his mother had paid me special interest. Surely, between the three of us we would find a way to get around Father's draconian behavior.
Draconian behavior. I had thought for many hours about how I could explain Father's unnatural possessiveness. I had learned from Camille's reaction when I had attempted, ever so slightly, to confide in her my distress about Father. Her shock had been complete and then she had excused my fears. Even Arthur, that night under the willow tree, had waved aside Father's behavior as that of a grieving widower who mourned the loss of his wife and was, therefore, understandably careful of his daughter. I knew better. I knew the truth. His increasing attentions to me were not simply overbearing and possessive, they were becoming horrifyingly inappropriate. It was an abomination, but I had come to suspect my father wanted me to take the place of my mother, in all ways. I had also come to believe that my suspicions could never be shared. So, instead of the truth I would paint a picture of a gruff, domineering father who frightened my delicate sensibilities. I would appeal to the gentleman within Arthur to rescue me.
It would be absurd for Father to turn down an honorable marriage proposal from a family with the wealth and social status of the Simptons. The alliance with their money and power would be too tempting. All I need do would be to secure Arthur's affections and convince him that my fear of Father's domination was so great that my health was at risk, and that we must have a short engagement. Father himself had taught me that men wanted to believe in the fragility and hysteria of women. Though Arthur was kind and good, he was a man.
The dressmaker arrived late Monday afternoon. It was decided that Mother's most elegant emerald silk gown would be reworked to fit my figure. I was still being fitted and pinned when Father had burst into my third-floor parlor without introduction or warning.
I could see the shock in the dressmaker's eyes. I had to raise my hands to cover my half-bared br**sts as she had been in the process of repinning the dress's bodice.
Father's gaze had seared my body.
"The silk-an excellent choice." He'd nodded in approval as he'd paced a complete circle around me.
"Yes, sir. I agree. It will be lovely on your daughter," said the dressmaker, lowering her eyes.
"The gold lace is vulgar, though, for one so young as my Emily," Father had announced. "Remove it."
"I can do so, sir, but then the dress will be completely unadorned and, if you beg pardon for me saying so, sir, the occasion calls for something spectacular."
"I disagree." Father had stroked his beard and continued to study me and speak as if I weren't in the room, but only a soulless manikin. "Make the cut simple, but pleasing. The silk is the richest it was possible to acquire on this side of the world, and Emily's innocence is adornment enough for the dress. Otherwise, I will look to her late mother's jewels and, perhaps, find something appropriate for the evening."
"Very good, sir. It will be as you desire."
The dressmaker had been tucking and pinning, so she had not seen the heat in my father's eyes when he responded with, "Yes. It will, indeed, be as I desire."
I'd said nothing.

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